Remembering

Wednesday was Armistice Day. The lockdown meant that its public observance was significantly reduced compared to previous years. Here in Poitiers, the usual military parade and service in the main square were replaced by a small ceremony at a First World War memorial, attended by the mayor and a small group of public officials.

On TV we watched the events at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Again, the lockdown meant that this was a much scaled-down event. Attendance was limited to just thirty people, including the heads of the armed forces and previous heads of state, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. Everyone present wore bleuets (cornflowers), the French equivalent of the UK poppy. As tradition dictates, President Macron laid a wreath in front of the statue of Georges Clemenceau, President of the Council during the First World War.

Nearby is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, on which a flame is lit every day. It is exactly one hundred years since the buried soldier made his journey to Paris. At three o’clock in the afternoon on 10 November 1920, in a makeshift chapel at Verdun, a young infantryman was asked to lay a bouquet of flowers (gathered from the battlefield of Verdun) on one of eight identical coffins brought back from different battlefields of the Front: Flanders, Artois, the Somme, Île-de-France, Chemin des Dames, Champagne, Verdun, and Lorraine. The following day, a gun carriage bearing the chosen coffin was taken in procession to the Arc de Triomphe. Behind it was a decorated chariot bearing the heart of Léon Gambetta, an eminent republican (the event celebrated both victory in the war and the fiftieth anniversary of the Third Republic). The coffin lay in state, with a military guard, for three months. On 28 January 1921, in the presence of Lloyd George, Marshal Foch, and Marshal Pétain, the Unknown Soldier, along with the Legion of Honour, the Military Medal, and the Military Cross, was placed in the tomb, where he remains. On Wednesday, as President Macron lit the flame, the names of the nineteen French soldiers who have died this year were read out. It was low-key but effective.

On Wednesday evening in Paris, another much more elaborate ceremony took place when the writer Maurice Genevoix was admitted to the Pantheon, the grand temple in the centre of Paris and the last resting place for France’s most esteemed citizens.

A student at the École normale supérieure in August 1914, Genevoix signed up and joined the 106th infantry regiment. He took part in the Battle of the Marne and the march on Verdun. On 25 April 1915, in Rupt-en-Woëvre near Les Éparges, he was seriously wounded, losing the use of his left hand. Hospitalised for seven months, he began writing the first of a series of five books based on notes recorded in the trenches. They described in vivid detail the daily lives of les poilus (un poilu, literally ‘a hairy one’, is the French equivalent of the British ‘Tommy’). These were collected together and published in 1949 as Ceux de 14 (Those of 14),now regarded as one of the greatest testimonies of the First World War.

The Pantheon investiture was the result of a commitment made by President Macron when, two years ago, he visited Les Éparges during a tour of wartime Eastern Front sites to mark the Armistice centenary. Describing Ceux de 14 as ‘incomparable’, he said, ‘When the voices of the poilus have died away forever, it is incomprehensible that “Those of 14” do not appear in the Pantheon. They will all cross the threshold with their megaphone that was Maurice Genevoix.’ He was as good as his word. Genevoix, only the seventy-ninth person to enter the Pantheon, now rests alongside Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and Pierre and Marie Curie.

The event itself was impressive, despite again being restricted to thirty people. At 6 p.m., the president and his wife, Brigitte, joined with members of the Genevoix family on the forecourt of the Pantheon, where there was an arrangement of 101 illuminated glass cubes, each containing a handful of soil from one of the 101 French départements. On the 101st cube, students from the École normale supérieure placed a handful of earth from Les Éparges, where Genevoix was injured.

Images were projected onto the Pantheon façade while a specially commissioned musical piece was played. Inside, standing next to a new artwork by German artist Anselm Kiefer, the president made a speech, paying tribute to Genevoix and his fellow poilus. As we’ve discovered from watching his lockdown broadcasts on television, Macron is an excellent speaker, calm, dignified, and authoritative.

There is a YouTube video of the entire service. It’s nearly an hour long in total, but there is a very moving segment, starting at five minutes in and lasting for about five minutes, which shows the display projected on the front of the Pantheon. It is well worth seeing.

Maurice Genevoix (1890-1980)

***

The Times recently posted a list of twenty-five suggestions for things to do during lockdown. These include: learn Swedish, become a social media influencer, make your own cheese, brush up on your survival skills, get a head start with scuba diving, and learn to samba. All laudable, no doubt, but a little energetic for my taste. Instead I’ve set myself the more realistic task of browsing on Twitter till I learn one interesting new fact each day. Here are the pick of the last week.

In medieval chess, each pawn had its own role: Gambler, City Guard, Innkeeper, Merchant, Doctor, Weaver, Blacksmith, and Farmer.

Alexander Graham Bell suggested that telephones should be answered with the word AHOY. HELLO was Thomas Edison’s suggestion.

During the 1980s, Birds Eye sold more than 25 miles (40 km) of Arctic Roll every month.

Going, Going, Gone

Monday

Out for a walk after lunch, in my permitted exercise hour. Poitiers is always quiet on a Monday, with most of the shops shut. This can be very pleasant – a gentle transition between the weekend and the working week. On a gloomy day, when I am a mile from home and it begins to rain, it is less appealing. Turning a corner near Place Leclerc, I pass a bunch of seven squaddies, wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns. They all look very young. The nearest couple make eye contact with me, and I wonder what they are thinking. They may be the same ones I saw patrolling alongside the police outside the Cathedral yesterday morning. A sight we will no doubt have to get used to for a while.

The soldiers’ presence is co-ordinated through Vigipirate, the national security alert system which was set up by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978. It sounds vaguely swashbuckling, but is actually an acronym of Vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroristes à l’explosif (‘vigilance and protection of installations against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks’). The system defines levels of threat represented by five colours: white, yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. The levels call for specific security measures, including increased police or police/military mixed patrols in subways, train stations, and other vulnerable locations. We are currently at scarlet (a definite threat of major terrorist attacks). In 2015, after the Bataclan attack in Paris, Opération Sentinelle was initiated. It is ongoing, deploying 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect ‘sensitive areas’. Right now, that probably includes every city centre in France.

Wednesday

It’s an ill wind. Having learnt from the first lockdown, many local shops have been quick to offer a click-and-collect service now that they are closed, including, thankfully, bookshops (why the **** are vape shops regarded as ‘essential’ but bookshops are not?) We are doing our best to support them all wherever possible.

An unexpected bonus is that the move online means that many things we would not otherwise have visited are now unexpectedly available. The most exotic of these that I have found so far is the Drouot Auction House in Paris – effectively the French Sotheby’s. They have been forced to close their doors during the lockdown but are continuing their auctions online. It took me just two minutes to register an account. Madame was quite alarmed when she realised that I had to give them my credit card details, and she has made me promise never to visit the site after lunch.

For me it’s a slightly more civilised version of fantasy league football. At the start of the month I allot myself a notional €500,000. I look through the items in the online catalogues, decide my maximum bid for anything that takes my fancy, and then we’re off to the races. Obviously, I don’t actually bid, but you’d be surprised at how tense it can get. If my maximum bid for any lot is higher than the hammer price, I claim it as mine. So far this month I’ve managed to pick up a bronze representation of an eleventh-century Ethiopian king for €120k (it reminded me of an old history teacher of mine), a nice Raoul Dufy oil painting of Deauville harbour (€210k), and a case of 2005 Mouton Rothschild at a very reasonable €11k. Sadly, I just missed out on a complete set of Ian Fleming first editions, which went for €22k, just over my limit. My only regret is paying €4,500 for a Cartier ‘tank’ watch. It’s very nice, but I could have got it for €3k. Goes to show you can’t always trust the estimates. Lesson learnt.

It still means I’m over €100k in credit this month. There’s a sale of erotic art next Tuesday, but the idea of Madame discovering me reading the catalogue does not appeal. I’ll probably settle for the Second Empire snuffboxes on Wednesday.

Friday

Another thing that hasn’t been affected by lockdown is construction work, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in the city centre right now. Two projects are council-funded. One is a new frontage for the central library, the Médiathèque François Mitterrand, where a landscaped garden is being built, and the other involves knocking down a rather forbidding wall in front of the old Banque de France building in Boulevard Solférino and putting a hanging garden in its place. Both will brighten up the city centre considerably, and they are another sign that the council doesn’t seem to be strapped for cash.

Growing up in London in the 1950s, I can remember a lot of building work going on to cover up old bomb sites from the Second World War. There would always be a few men hanging around watching the building work going on, and as a boy, hurrying by to play football or whatever, I used to think this an odd and boring thing to do. Not any longer; it is completely addictive. I try to arrange my daily walks so that I can see the progress at one or other of these sites. Sometimes nothing seems to happen for several days, and then suddenly, because of a minor alteration, some shrubs planted or some brickwork done, the whole layout seems transformed.

I am becoming a familiar sight to some of the workers, and I suspect they may think I am the Clerk of Works from the town hall. For a joke, I’ve toyed with the idea of turning up with a clipboard and stopwatch, but there’s a fair chance I’d have a brick hurled at my head.

Boulevard Solférino 2019

Last Week

Early next year

Saturday

It was sad to read the obituaries of both John Sessions and Geoffrey Palmer this week. John Sessions’ Life of Napoleon was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Geoffrey Palmer’s line (in Reggie Perrin), ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, is now hardwired into my brain.

There’s a little piece about obituaries in The Times today. A reader asks why medical conditions are sometimes given as cause of death, whereas in other cases people are reported simply to have ‘died’. The paper’s obituaries editor says that they include the cause of death if it is known, but not if there is a continuing inquest or the family didn’t want to say.

Not all newspaper obituaries go into the cause of death. The Daily Telegraph briefly tried it as an experiment, but one of the first subjects under the new regime was a New Orleans jazz musician who had apparently died of an exploding penis implant. This was regarded as a little too much information for Telegraph readers.

Lockdown blues

Such a shame. Madame S and I had put so much effort into our Trick or Treat costumes this year, and now they will have to be mothballed for a year because of the lockdown.

***

It’s not quite like remembering where you were when John Kennedy died, but I can clearly recall the start of the last lockdown. On Saturday 14th March,we were in La Mangeoire restaurant when Florent, the owner, came and told us that it had just been announced that he had to close at midnight, and he did not know when he would be able to reopen. Florent was philosophical about it, but the news came as quite a shock to us. I remember we visited a couple of our local bars on the way home, to say a temporary goodbye to the staff, some of whom were suddenly facing an uncertain future. On the Monday, President Macron announced that the full lockdown would start at noon the following day and would last for ‘a fortnight at least’. In fact, the first lockdown lasted for two-and-a-half months, until 2nd June.

This time there was no surprise. The steadily increasing spread of the virus, despite the various local measures taken, meant that a second national lockdown was inevitable. It was announced on Wednesday and started at midnight on Friday. Initially scheduled for four weeks, it is quite likely that this will be extended, though Christmas does complicate the situation.

It seemed appropriate on Thursday to go back to La Mangeoire to have our last meal out for the foreseeable future. The place was fully booked for the whole evening, and all the other bars and restaurants around Place Charles de Gaulle were equally busy. Late into the evening there were crowds sitting out on the terraces, swaddled in coats and scarves, determined to enjoy their last night of freedom. The local paper reported that some hairdressers stayed open till 23.00 to cope with the last-minute bookings. One can only feel sympathy for the owners of Senza Nome, the Italian restaurant in Rue du Moulin à Vent that only opened a fortnight ago, and even more for Le Bouillon Carnot, in Rue Carnot, which opened on Wednesday, the day before the lockdown.

The rules are the same as before. We can go out only for essential purposes – shopping, medical appointments, etc. – and each time we have to complete an attestation de déplacement dérogatoire, a form saying why we are out, when we left, who we are, and so forth. We can only go out for exercise for an hour and within a 1 km radius of the house.

There are some small but significant changes this time. Schools and colleges are staying open, as are the markets, both covered and open-air, along with parks and public gardens (which gives us more options for our hour’s exercise). People are already used to wearing masks virtually everywhere and using sanitising gel on entering a shop. Most people I’ve spoken to accept the situation resignedly. We have our stockpiles of DVDs and books ready. There may be a little panic-buying in the supermarkets, but I doubt it. Many cafés and restaurants gradually started takeaway and delivery services as the last lockdown dragged on. I suspect that they will be a lot quicker off the mark this time. We are getting used to lockdowns. One difference, of course, is that the last one started as the days were getting longer and the weather was improving. Spring and the sense of renewed optimism that came with it helped to compensate for the temporary loss of freedom. Recent events in France mean that we are entering winter in a much more sombre frame of mind.

The obvious question is what happens afterwards. If (when?) the number of cases starts to rise again, will regular lockdowns be the new normal until a vaccine is eventually found? Who knows.

Little old wine drinker, me

I only ever went to one wine tasting in the UK. It was organised by The Wine Society and held in an upmarket hotel in Cambridge. I didn’t really enjoy it. Blazered and chinoed young men with names like Sholto and Tristram dispensing wine to middle-class couples overeager to show off their own knowledge of the subject. So, on Tuesday, I had my reservations when our friend Colette suggested we went to a tasting in nearby Chauvigny, which she’d seen advertised in the local paper. For one thing, everyone present would have been more or less weaned on wine, whereas, in good light, I can just about tell the difference between red and white. Add to this the fact that drink makes me ridiculously overconfident about my ability to speak French, and there seemed every possibility of my making even more of a prat of myself than usual.

Nevertheless, Colette had assured us it would be fun. Pierre and Louise, friends of hers whom we’d met and liked, were also going, so we decided to tag along. I should point out that Colette is 79 but is very much, as they say, ‘still game’. She was the first neighbour to call on us to welcome us to Rue des Carmes, and we have become good friends. She reminds me a little of my dad at her age, in that she has no hesitation in speaking her mind on any subject, often quite loudly and at some length.

We went in Pierre’s car, and the journey took about 25 minutes. I’d expected something like the Cambridge event and was looking for a hotel, or perhaps even a small château, so I was a little surprised when we drew up at a small trading estate just outside Chauvigny. Our venue, La Moustache, is a ‘Cave Pub’ situated between a boulangerie and Toutsie Salon Toilettage, a shop selling pet accessories. My spirits rose; the evening was clearly looking up.

On entering, we appeared to be in a beer warehouse. Crates were lined up, floor to ceiling, along the walls, and an impressive array of bottles was laid out on several tables. At the back, a few customers were standing at a bar. A sign on the counter said ‘Happy Hour 18.00–21.00’. Nearby, a couple of teenagers were playing at a pool table.

None of us said anything for a moment or two, then Pierre went up and spoke to the barman. A moment later, we were led to a small area slightly to the left of the main room. Here we found a long table and six chairs. Six wine glasses were laid out along with a small card saying ‘Reservé’. Pierre asked if anyone else was expected. The barman shrugged and said, ‘Sometimes people come, sometimes they don’t.’ Definitely neither a Sholto nor a Tristram.

He disappeared into a back room and then returned with two opened bottles of wine, one white and one red, both from the same local vineyard, La Tour Beaumont. He gave us an interesting little lecture on the white, which is made with the comparatively rare Fié Gris grape, poured us a glass each, and left us to it.

The wine was fruity and pleasant, but nothing exceptional. We sat sipping wine in silence for a moment or two. Then Colette said, ‘Nothing to eat? You’d think they’d at least give you a biscuit.’ Louise noticed a laminated menu on the next table. We decided to share a couple of platters of bread, cheese, and charcuterie, and Pierre went off to order these.

We finished the white. As there was no sign of our host, Colette told Pierre to pour out the red, a Cabernet Franc. We used the same glasses. No-one commented on this. I was beginning to feel quite at home. We all agreed the red was better than the white. We finished the bottle, ate our food, and the general mood lightened considerably. Colette suggested getting another red, which I thought was an excellent idea. Louise looked at Pierre, who was driving, but he assured her that he didn’t mind.

Colette was telling us about a recent holiday she had had in Alsace and how much she had enjoyed the wines there, when our host returned. He looked a little taken aback at our having finished two bottles of red, but said nothing.

‘Do you have any Alsace wine?’ Catherine asked.

‘We have a Gewurztraminer, Madame,’ he replied.

‘We’ll have a bottle of that …’

She looked at the menu.

‘… and some apple tart to go with it.’

Our host nodded and scurried off. Pierre looked thoughtful.

While we ate our tart and drank our Gewurztraminer (Pierre had a Perrier), Colette told us about her sciatica, her temperamental boiler, and her problems in configuring her new mobile phone.

On leaving, we each bought six bottles of the red. After some deliberation, Colette also bought another bottle of the Gewurztraminer.

She fell asleep on the way home. When we arrived at her house, Pierre gently woke her and saw her to her door, carrying her box of wine for her. I heard her say what a delightful evening it had been and that we should do it again soon.

Pierre wished her goodnight and told her to sleep well.

***

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that the curfew in force in a number of major cities was to be extended to 38 new departments, starting at midnight on Friday/Saturday. Fifty-four of France’s 96 mainland départements – and approximately 46 million people – are now under curfew from 21.00 to 06.00.

While this second wave of the virus – since the end of the lockdown in June – has only cost 2,000 lives compared to the 30,000 in the first wave, there are two worrying aspects to this resurgence. First, a significantly ramped-up free testing programme, soon to be expanded even further, has led to a sharply increased caseload that hospitals are struggling to meet. Second, this time around, the virus has spread far more quickly throughout the country. The first wave was confined mostly to Greater Paris and the east. This time, it is all-pervasive. Summer vacations and students returning to universities are likely to be contributory causes.

Nearby Haute-Vienne, Indre-et-Loire, and Maine-et-Loire are all now under curfew. So far, our department, Vienne, has escaped, but one senses that it is only a matter of time.

At the moment, the curfew is the only restriction placed on the newly-added departments. There are no lockdowns, no reductions in public transport, and no restrictions on travelling from one region to another. Schools, colleges, and universities remain open. So do markets. People are advised to work from home for a day or two a week where possible, but only advised. It is difficult to see how long this can last if the number of cases continues to rise at its present rate.

Strange days

Monday

The flu jab season has arrived. I received a letter a couple of weeks ago saying that I could get my jab from today, so I headed to the pharmacie this morning. In previous years, they handed me my injection in a little freezer bag which I could take home and either inject myself or put in the fridge and arrange an appointment for my GP to do it. Clumsy and short-sighted as I am, there was a strong risk that I’d inadvertently inject the arm of my chair rather than myself, so I used to go along and get Dr L to do it. This year, however, the pharmacie itself offers the service. The pharmacist who served me led me into a small room at the back and did the job herself in a couple of minutes. She was polite and reserved, so I decided against using my ‘little prick with a needle’ joke.

As I’m over 65, I’m one of those who are first in the queue for the service. Madame S, being still young and sprightly, will have to wait till mid-November for hers.

***

Sound advice from someone on Twitter: ‘Before you get angry with someone, stop and take a deep breath, because then you’ll be able to shout louder.’

Tuesday

A variation on an old joke:

How many retired English teachers does it take to change a four-foot-long fluorescent light bulb?

Answer: One. But it will take him an hour, an awful lot of shouting and swearing, and a chair he will fall off. Twice.

Wednesday

Our taxe d’habitation (council tax bill) arrives. When we came here, we were told that this was being phased out over two years, with a large reduction this year and nothing to pay next year. This schedule was later amended, and we were told that the tax would be phased out more slowly and finally disappear by 2023.

Now, however, the vast expenditure entailed by the coronavirus has apparently led the government to reconsider the whole situation. What would replace the tax has never been made clear. Our current bill is a little over €2,000. Out of interest, I checked the figures in the UK, and this is almost identical to what we would have paid if we were still living in our house in Ely. Here, however, the figure includes €138 for our TV licence, and we get our bins emptied four times a week.

This, spotted in Viz today, seemed apt:

‘I was delighted when the kind people at the Inland Revenue wrote to me recently telling me that my tax return was “outstanding”, particularly as I can’t even remember sending it in.’

Tom Smith, Macclesfield

Thursday

A grim story. The gym where I go for my Thursday morning Pilates class is a ground-floor room on the corner of an apartment block in rue Grand Cerf. It has windows on two sides looking out on the road. High above the road, and clearly visible from the gym, the Viaduct Léon-Blum leads from the plateau that is the town centre to the top of the station car park on the far side of rue Grand Cerf. From there, one can take an escalator down to the station.

Sandra, our coach, tells us that last Thursday afternoon, she and some of the class she was taking saw a man commit suicide by falling from the viaduct onto the road. She later found out that she knew the man, who had been the head of the Orthopaedic Unit at Poitiers University Hospital, where she used to work as a physiotherapist.

Friday

This was the day we were due to go on a weekend trip to Paris to celebrate Madame’s birthday. The recent lockdown announcement put paid to that, so we decided instead to go to Tours, about 65 miles away. It’s a lively place, the largest city in the Loire Valley, with plenty of things to do and see. We spent Friday evening in Place Plumereau, the centre of the old town, a place full of bars and restaurants. The vast majority of people were wearing masks, but any concept of safe social distancing seemed to have disappeared, with crowds sitting closely packed everywhere.

As if in response to this (but actually in response to a significantly raised incidence rate throughout the whole Indre-et-Loire department), the prefecture announced new restrictive measures to be put into action from Saturday: a limitation of gatherings in public spaces to a maximum of six people, a requirement for bars and restaurants to keep a register of all customers, and a ruling that all bars and restaurants close at 10 p.m.

Despite this, we had a good day on Saturday. A walk along the Loire in the morning and a stroll around the food market, lunch in Place Plumereau, a look at the very fine Saint-Gatien Cathedral, forty winks at the hotel, and then an evening of grazing and bar-hopping. We strolled back to the hotel around ten o’clock, surrounded by crowds of young people clearly at a loss for what to do after the new curfew.

They could have done like us and watched The Shining on TV.

***

It’s fair to say that the mood in France is pretty sombre at the moment. The shocking story of the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in the quiet commune of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (twinned with Ramsgate, for some bizarre reason) is dominating the news. Eight cities are rated at the Covid level of maximum alert and eight at the next level of heightened alert. The rate of identified new cases continues to rise steeply – it was 10,593 a month ago, yesterday it was 32,427. Silver linings are a little difficult to discern at the moment.

Still Living

Every year, I have to prove to the BBC that I am still alive and entitled to receive my pension. They send me a form to fill, which needs to be witnessed by someone in authority – a solicitor, a doctor etc. This would entail me paying a fee, but the Beeb also accepts a certificat de vie, a similar document issued by the government, which you can print out from their website and get signed and witnessed, for free, by an official at the town hall.

On Wednesday, I printed my form, filled in my details and presented myself at the reception desk at the hôtel de ville. A large, bearded man, a distant relative of Harry Potter’s friend Hagrid, eyed me with suspicion as I stated my reason for being there. He asked for my pièce d’identité and I gave him my passport. With a pencil in his enormous fist, he noted my name in a tatty exercise book . I suspect this data was not destined for any sophisticated IT system. Silently, Hagrid pointed me to a nearby door.

Here, at another desk, a middle-aged woman handed me a ticket with A23 on it and motioned me to a bench on which two young men and a young woman were sitting. All of them, it turned out, were there to collect student bus passes. One of them started grumbling about having to wait for these. I thought of telling them that when you get to my age you need a piece of paper just to prove you are still breathing, but I wasn’t sure my French was up to it.

After ten minutes, my number was called and I was ushered into a booth, where another large, bearded man, possibly Hagrid’s brother, was sitting. I told him that I wanted a certificat de vie and took my filled-in form out of my bag. While I was doing this, he had reached behind him and produced another, blank certificat de vie from a filing cabinet.

I pushed my filled-in form towards him.

He looked at me for a moment, then looked at his blank form then at my filled-in one.

‘Where did you get this?’

‘I printed it at home. From the government website.’

‘How many of these forms do you need?’

‘Just the one.’

He was silent for a moment, no doubt mentally rummaging through some book of governmental etiquette to handle a situation like this. Putting his blank form back in the filing cabinet would probably require the filling-in of a different form to explain its non-use.

Reluctantly, he picked up my form and started reading the details I had filled in. He then asked me for my passport to check that I hadn’t lied about my name and date of birth. He stamped my form, signed it and slid it across the table with a solemn ‘Voilà’.

I looked at it and saw that, in the section to be filled in by him, he had not recorded my passport number. With the most ingratiating smile I could muster, I passed the passport and form back and pointed to where he needed to do this. He looked at the form, then at me. I was clearly a troublemaker. He filled in the number and passed the form back in silence. We wished each other good day, and I left the booth feeling that I had somehow let us both down badly.

Another service provided by the council is free recycling bags. We were out of these, and as this seemed a day for administrative chores, I went to the council offices at the far end of town to pick some up. However, when I got there, the place was closed for redecoration; a notice on the door said that, for the time being, recycling bags were to be collected from the hôtel de ville.

With a heavy heart, I went back to face Hagrid, who clearly remembered me.

‘Des sacs pour le recyclage?’

He looked at me in a way that suggested that he’d been talking to Hagrid 2, then pointed me in the same direction as before. The woman gave me a ticket with A43 on it, and I sat down. After a few minutes, I was summoned. My luck was in, and instead of Hagrid 2, I got a charming young woman who gave me a large roll of recycling bags – a year’s supply.

‘Would monsieur like some ordinary refuse bags?’

‘No, thank you. We have plenty.’

‘Some toutou bags?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Pour votre chien. Le poop.’

‘Non merci, pas de chien.’

On the way out, I raised my bundle of bags in a friendly salute to Hagrid, but he stared at me blankly, still trying to work out what scam I was working with bin bags and a certificat de vie.

***

We have cancelled our planned trip to Paris. As expected, the city was declared an area of maximum alert on Monday. Bars and cafés have to close for two weeks, and restaurants must close at ten o’clock. Fortunately, our train and hotel reservations were fully refundable – as they more or less have to be these days. Few people are going to take the risk of booking any sort of trip in advance unless they can keep their options open.

Generally speaking, the outlook here, as in the UK, continues to be bleak. The number of new cases reached a new level yesterday, with nearly 27,000 people testing positive in twenty-four hours. It’s been rising steadily for weeks now. Along with Paris and Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble and Saint-Étienne have now been declared areas of maximum alert. There are eight cities at the level of heightened alert: Bordeaux, Rennes, Rouen, Nice, Toulouse, Montpellier, Dijon and Clermont-Ferrand. The health minister, Olivier Véran, has warned that Toulouse and Montpellier are likely to be raised to maximum alert in the next few days.

The major difference between here and the UK, as far as I can see, is that in France the government’s management of the crisis is broadly endorsed by the public. I think that one of the main reasons for this is that, compared to that of the UK, the overall strategy is clear and easy to understand. The alert level system and the map that goes with it, showing areas of the country in different shades of red according to level, are easy to follow. How an area gets the level assigned to it (the number of cases and the situation in local hospitals) is also clear. The management of restrictions in an area, once its level has been assigned, is handled locally by the prefecture, which to me seems sensible.

As with any government policy, there will be dissenting voices, but there is nothing like the confusion and anger currently ‘on stark display’ in the UK, according to Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer: ‘Between north and south. Between young and old … Between government and opposition. Between scientist and scientist. Between Westminster and local government. Between cabinet member and cabinet member. And between prime minister and his own party.’

Still, things can only get better. There are now only eighty-two days until Brexit.

Learning French

We’ve lived in France for two and a half years and my French is still pretty atrocious. That said, I can read reasonably well now, and my listening is slowly improving, though I still need sous-titres pour sourds et malentendants (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), which are available on most TV programmes. Although this is a very fine invention, it not only tells you what people are saying but also things like ‘a phone rings’ or ‘a shot is fired’, obviously useful for the hard of hearing, but a little tedious for those of us who are simply hard of French. The subtitles also describe any background music that is being played. This is nearly always described as ‘sinister’, ‘romantic’ or ‘intriguing’. As far I can tell, intriguing merely means that the person doing the subtitling thinks a piece of music is neither sinister nor romantic. I find this quite engrossing, but Madame S gets visibly irritated with my occasional ‘well I thought that was quite romantic’ or ‘did that really sound sinister to you?’

My main problem with French is speaking, or rather speaking out loud. In my head, lying in bed or sitting quietly on a bus or train, I can string sentences together reasonably well. I can express my opinion, ask others for theirs, even make the occasional joke. It is when I actually have to open my mouth and speak to a real person that the world falls apart. My mind goes blank and I am reduced to about half a dozen safe phrases. ‘You’re right’, ‘I agree’, ‘We will see’ and ‘I don’t know’ will not get you into trouble, but they are not going to get people queuing up to talk to you at any social event. My accent, which in my head is Maigret with a hint of Charles Aznavour, becomes pure Arthur Daley when unleashed on the general public. I find it quite difficult to keep talking when my interlocutor is visibly wincing.

To try and remedy this situation I have just signed up for three-and-a-half hours a week of online French lessons. One of the few unexpected benefits of Covid-19 is that many English universities are now offering some of their courses online rather than in the classroom. As far as I can tell, there are no similar courses available here in France.

At first I had thought I might not be allowed to enrol from France, and I confess I had thought about using an English address, that of one of my daughters for instance. But the prospect of my acting as if I was online in England for twelve weeks was not an appealing one. I kept thinking of the scene in The Great Escape where Gordon Jackson, pretending to be German, says ‘thank you’ when the Gestapo officer wishes him good luck in English. I was likewise bound to slip up in some conversation exercise by saying that I’d been shopping at Monoprix or buying a baguette at the boulangerie. Luckily, my worry was completely unfounded and I was assured that living in France was no obstacle.

Our lessons are my first experience of using Zoom, and it’s been good fun. I’d imagined that, this being a university-run course, most of the students would be younger than me, but nearly all of us are at or near retirement age. I’m not the only one new to Zoom. George, who’s from Peckham, has struggled to get the hang of it; in the two lessons so far, we can hear him clearly but we’ve only managed to see his forehead. In the first lesson, the tutor suggested that he adjusted either his seat or his camera. He agreed, but then there was a loud crash as if he had fallen off his chair. After a minute or so his forehead reappeared, asking ‘is that any better?’ The tutor, wisely in my opinion, said that it was fine.

The lessons are well planned, and I think I’m making some progress. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a five-year-old. I am constantly being distracted by peering at the backdrops of my various fellow onscreen students.

Harry from Dudley has, on the wall behind him, a Wolverhampton Wanderers poster and a large blown-up photograph of an Alsatian with its name, Rocky, on a metal plaque. I think Harry may be single. Judith in Cornwall has a very impressive wine rack (not a euphemism, I hasten to add), and Chloe from Norwich has a large stuffed owl. Nigel from Hemel Hempstead, who’s clearly a bit of a prat, has some of the books on his bookshelves facing outwards as if he was in a branch of Waterstones. Strangely enough, none of these are Dan Browns or Agatha Christies but things like The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. My own backdrop is of bookshelves, and I’ve thought of displaying copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Fifty Shades of Grey just to get him thinking.

***

There’s been a sort of beer festival going on in Poitiers for the last fortnight. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s not been in a specific venue. Instead, various bars have given over an evening to promoting the beers of one or more of the ever-growing number of small local breweries.

On Friday Madame and I went to Le Zinc to sample the beers of La Chamois and De Mysteriis Pictavis. After some lengthy research, Madame declared La Chamois ‘Juicy’, a light citrusy IPA, her favourite, while I went for the De Mysteriis Pictavis ‘Jinx’, a wonderful spicy porter. On emerging from the bar into the fresh air, I sensed that our research had been a little too thorough. The last thing I remember clearly is suggesting to Madame that ‘Juicy and Jinx’ would be the perfect name for a TV series, loosely based on our own lives, which I would write. In it, we would travel around France solving crimes and having hilarious adventures.

I have forgiven her for her cruel response on the grounds that she is not used to drinking large quantities of beer.

Juicy
Jinx

Masking reality

The Covid-19 situation in France is steadily worsening, much as it is in the UK.

On Sunday we were told that Vienne had joined the ever-growing list of French departments classified as rouge, i.e.having a Covid infection rate of higher than 50 per 100,000. This allows the prefectures to trigger additional measures to reduce the risk of transmission. 

On Monday we learnt what this meant, and I think most people were surprised how little had changed. The only new rule is that masks are now compulsory everywhere in the central area of the town. Most people were already observing this anyway, and I’d noticed recently that you are likely to be stared at pointedly if you are not wearing a mask. There are, as yet, no restrictions on bar and restaurant opening times, and the museum, cinemas and other places of entertainment are still open.

On Tuesday, the government further refined its classification system, allowing it to impose strict restrictions on the areas with the highest numbers of cases. There are now four levels of classification: Alert, Heightened Alert, Maximum Alert and State of Emergency.

There are sixty-nine departments with the Alert designation, including Vienne. As well as Monday’s new mask regulation, the new classification means that weddings, parties and social events are now limited to thirty people maximum.

Eleven “metropoles” (cities and their surrounding suburbs) have been given the Heightened Alert designation, including Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice. Here there is an infection rate above 150 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a high level of spread among elderly people (above 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Restrictions in these areas include closing bars (though not restaurants) at 10 p.m. at the latest, limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public spaces to ten, and lowering the maximum attendance for big events from 5,000 to 1,000. Gyms and sports halls will also close in most cases, along with community halls. Visits to care homes will only be possible with appointments.

Only one area in metropolitan France, Marseille, has been classified as Maximum Alert, although the overseas department of Guadeloupe has also been so designated. This means there is an infection rate above 250 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a very high level of spread among elderly people (above 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). This level of alert means local authorities must close all bars and restaurants for at least two weeks from Saturday, although the period could be prolonged if the health situation requires it. All other public spaces that do not already have strict hygiene rules in place must also close, although cinemas, museums and theatres will be exempt from this if they have sufficient hygiene protections.

The move is deeply unpopular in the city, and on Friday hundreds of restaurant and bar owners staged a demonstration protesting against the new shutdown. According to Bernard Marty, president of the regional hospitality association, the demonstration took place outside the commercial courthouse ‘because this is where we’ll probably come to declare bankruptcy’.

Nowhere in France has yet been given the designation State of Emergency, and no details have so far been given as to what measures this would entail. During the first wave of the virus the whole of France was placed in a State of Health Emergency, but this designation seems to open the way to declaring a State of Emergency in certain areas only.

We’ve booked a weekend in Paris in three weeks’ time. I’d say the chances of that city being moved to Maximum Alert status by then are about fifty-fifty.

***

When I was a very small boy, we used to have in our garden in Fulham a scaffolding pole set in concrete, which served as one of the supports for the washing line. While the pole was useful in facilitating the weekly wash, one of my earliest memories (this would have been the mid-1950s) is of it being put to very different use.

On a couple of Sunday afternoons every September, my dad and my uncle Jerry would bring the family radio out into the garden, an extension cable keeping it plugged into the mains in the living room. The radio was one of those heavy old walnut cabinet jobs with such exotic stations as Athlone, Vatican City and Hilversum on the tuning dial. Placing it on a small rickety table, they would then somehow contrive to use the scaffolding pole as an aerial. I haven’t a clue how they achieved this, but it entailed a couple of minutes of “to me, to you” and the odd swear word as they slowly moved the table around the pole in a bizarre sort of ritual, attempting to get a signal. Then, almost magically, amid much crackling, we would hear the inimitable voice of Michael O’Hehir on RTE, commenting live from Croke Park in Dublin on either the All-Ireland Gaelic football or hurling final. Dad and Jerry would then spend the afternoon contentedly sitting in deckchairs, listening to the match and drinking bottles of Guinness, one of them rising every now and then to move the radio slightly as the signal waxed and waned.

Now, over sixty years later, I find myself, in an odd sort of way, following in my father’s footsteps. Over the past few weeks I have cobbled together a ramshackle software system which allows me to access BBC iPlayer and the UK version of Netflix (which is better than the French one).

Using Chromecast and a VPN and one or two other secret ingredients, I load them on my tablet and then send them to my TV screen. It’s very flaky. I have to leave the tablet untouched on a flat surface, as the slightest movement seems to crash the whole caboodle and I have to reload it. This is particularly annoying if it happens just as Morse, Barnaby or Poirot is about to reveal all.

French TV is reasonable, but with another lockdown looking increasingly likely, we need as many sources of home entertainment as we can get. It probably isn’t strictly legal, but with the world generally going to hell in a handcart I am prepared to take the risk (I know, of course, that I can rely on your absolute discretion). Anyway, I think Dad would have approved, and that’s good enough for me.

Not very Christmassy

Since the Green party, Poitiers Collectif, won the elections in June, the municipal council in Poitiers has been rather quiet. This is fair enough, I suppose; the symbolic first hundred days will not have been completed for a couple of weeks yet. They are in power for the next six years, and it’s reasonable for a new council to take stock before launching on any major new strategies. Obviously, having Covid-19 to deal with will have made their job significantly more difficult.

Nevertheless, in presentational terms it seems a little unfortunate that in our local paper, Le Nouvelle République, the first significant story to feature the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, is rather a negative one. It relates to the announcement that there will not be a traditional Christmas tree in the town’s main square this year. The reason given is that building work on the old theatre in the corner of the square is limiting the space available. As well as the tree, there is no room for the Ferris wheel which has been a major attraction in the last two years. Pierre-Marie Moreau, the president of the local chamber of commerce, has confirmed that technical reasons relating to the building work make it too difficult to install the wheel.

Both Madame Moncond’huy and Monsieur Moreau have promised that there will be a number of smaller trees around the city centre, along with food markets, designer markets, concerts, and street shows.

All of this seems fairly innocuous stuff, but a little cloud has appeared on the horizon for Madame Moncond’huy. Pierre Hurmic, the new mayor of Bordeaux and also a Green, has announced that they too will not be having a Christmas tree. However, Monsieur Hurmic has made it clear that this decision is based firmly on ecological grounds, saying that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ does not fit with his party’s green strategy, and that by the end of 2020 he wants to adopt a ‘charter of tree rights’ protecting trees in urban areas. His decision has been attacked by many, most noticeably by members of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). Madame Le Pen herself has joined in, declaring that talk of a ‘dead tree’ shows that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Now, in our own department, Vienne, Arnaud Fage, the only RN member of the departmental assembly, has accused Madame Moncond’huy of using the theatre building works as a pretext for carrying out a Green policy and demanded that a tree be placed in the main square to ensure that ‘our traditions are respected’.

All of this is good knockabout stuff. In many ways it reminds me of Gabriel Chevallier’s satirical novel Clochemerle. Set in a small town in pre-war France, the book describes the battle between Catholics and Republicans on the town council over the building of a public lavatory next to the church.

In all likelihood, the Christmas entertainments planned for Poitiers will be a great success and the row over the tree will be quickly forgotten. After all, the Poitiers Collectif are at the very beginning of their period of office, with the next elections not due until June 2026. But I can’t help wondering how much of an effect this little spat would have had if the elections were due to be held next January, rather than last June. Seemingly trivial things, the sort that Harold Macmillan described as ‘events, dear boy, events’, can often have a significant effect on public opinion.

The clearest example of this that I can think of is the UK general election of 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives surprisingly defeated Harold Wilson’s Labour government. When Wilson called the election in May of that year, Labour was holding a 7.5 per cent lead in the Gallup poll after doing well in the local elections earlier that month. However on election day, June 18,Labour lost sixty seats and the Conservatives gained sixty-five, giving an overall Tory majority of thirty-one. Many members of the outgoing government were convinced that their defeat was strongly influenced by England’s sudden and unexpected quarter-final defeat by West Germany in the World Cup in Mexico, just four days before the poll.

Wilson was dismissive of any Mexican connection – ‘governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures’ – but years later, in his memoirs, Denis Healey revealed that as early as that April the prime minister had called a strategy meeting at Chequers ‘in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day’. Tony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, blamed the defeat ‘on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions’. Wilson’s minister of sport, Denis Howell, was in no doubt that ‘the moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday’. According to Howell, on the Monday morning before the election, he and home secretary Roy Jenkins were at a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham: ‘Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures or immigration, but solely the football and whether manager Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit.’

Perhaps ominously for Poitiers Collectif, 2026 is a World Cup year. I imagine Madame Moncond’huy will be leading the singing of ‘Allez les Bleus!’ from the town hall steps.

***

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Poitiers (1346). In the Café des Arts on Friday evening, Madame S, in a whimsical mood after her third brandy and Baileys, suggested shinning up the statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers and draping a Union Jack on Joan’s head. I managed to persuade her out of this by explaining that any passing social media aficionado might take a snap, which, if made public, would be unlikely to help her French citizenship application. I also realised that the act would entail me giving her a piggy-back to get up high enough to reach the statue– a manoeuvre too awful to contemplate.

***

Quote of the week: ‘He’s enormously, enormously vigorous.’ – Matt Hancock on Boris Johnson during an interview with Times Radio on Friday.

Freewheeling

These are strange times. The coronavirus figures in France are steadily worsening. Last night 10,561 new cases were reported, the highest one-day count since the start of the outbreak. The figure was 6,544 last Monday.

On television on Friday night, Jean Castex, the prime minister, read out a statement on the current situation in France and the government’s response. There is to be a significant ramping-up of the screening and testing programme, and the number of departments classified as ‘red’ has now been increased from twenty-eight to forty-two. This classification allows the prefectures of those departments to trigger additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission. The prefects can specify where masks must be worn, decide whether major events can take place, and dictate the opening hours of certain businesses. They can also restrict travel – to a city, a department, or a limit of, say, a hundred kilometres.

The main trigger for a ‘red’ classification is an incidence rate greater than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. At the moment, in our department, Vienne, the rate is 50.5, but other factors to be taken into account (including the percentage of positive tests and the number of infections observed from a positive case) mean that we are not ‘red’ yet. I suspect it is just a matter of time.

It is interesting to compare the current French figures with those in the UK. For a couple of weeks the UK saw a significantly lower number of cases, but there is now a noticeable steady increase. It is quite possible that the difference between the two countries is down to the fact that France came out of lockdown a month earlier (June 1st rather than July 4th) and that the UK is now in the process of ‘catching up’.

Somehow, in Poitiers, on a day-to-day basis, life goes on, seemingly oblivious to this depressing backdrop. We still haven’t met anyone here who has experienced the virus themselves. Obviously, we are slightly cocooned, as Madame S works from home and we do not have children at school. One of our neighbours was furloughed but is now back at work. A friend who works in a testing laboratory says she has been very busy for months. Other than that, when one walks around the city, things seem reassuringly normal. The only obvious evidence of the crisis is the now almost universal wearing of masks. (The M in my KPMG mnemonic for leaving the house – Keys, Phone, Money, Glasses – now has to do double-duty.) But after a while, even the fact that people are wearing them ceases to register.

A spell of fine weather contributes to the general sense of all being well here in France. The temperature is forecast to be in the thirties for the coming week and to drop only slightly after that. There are still tourists around, and there has been the usual September influx of students at the university. The café and bar terraces are crowded every evening (which is of course part of the problem) and, after their August holidays, the gilet jaunes are demonstrating and setting fire to cars again.

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

The Tour de France came to Poitiers on Wednesday, and Madame S and I went up to Les Couronneries to stand on Avenue John Kennedy just a couple of hundred metres from the finishing line. It was a scorching day, and we had to wait an hour and twenty minutes before the peloton arrived, but we could watch their progress on a giant TV screen nearby. In the meantime, we were entertained by a seemingly endless carnival procession of trucks and floats sponsored by various French commercial outfits, many of them throwing sweets and novelties into the crowd. We were surrounded by a large number of small children, but by the judicious use of some Boris Johnson-like rugby tactics, I managed to score four mini-bags of Haribo, a Monoprix baseball cap, and a large foam rubber hand with the Peugeot logo on it. My apologies again to the poor little boy who inadvertently got his wrist wedged under my foot. The riders themselves of course passed by in a flash, but it was all tremendous fun. And it’s great to see Irishman Sam Bennett continuing to wear the green jersey for leading the points classification.

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

The peloton with Poitiers Cathedral in the background – just a few hundred metres from our house.

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

There has been a big story in the French press this week about an as yet unclaimed prize of €157 million in the EuroMillions lottery, the third largest prize ever. The draw was made on 1st September, and the winner has sixty days from that date to claim it.

Yesterday I received an email from Française des Jeux, the lottery organisers:

Bonjour Michael,
 
Vous avez gagné 2.2EUR à LOTO N° 2185348278.

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

Si vous souhaitez obtenir le détail et le récapitulatif des jeux auxquels vous avez participé, rendez-vous dans votre compte FDJ®.

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

People who say ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ deserve to be horsewhipped.

***

Out for a walk this morning. We passed the house of Monsieur Gouin, an elderly neighbour of ours. He has some scaffolding up at the front and is clearly having some renovation work done. Monsieur Gouin is quite doddery and, rather unkindly, I admit, I remarked that he could do with a bit of renovation work himself. After a moment’s pause, Madame S said, ‘There’s a TV programme in that … Hommes under the Hammer.’

I sometimes think that editing’s gain has been stand-up comedy’s loss.